August means canning tomatoes, starting to process apples, trying to keep up with deadheading and harvesting and not to get too far behind on the weeds. Ragweed blooming so my eyes are streaming and itching. Abundant harvests, delicious meals and plenty to give away to whoever comes along. The news continues alarming or discouraging and we see so many problems we don’t know how to begin to solve.
In this summer that starts our seventeenth year at the farm, I am grateful--to be here, for those who were here before us, for old friends and new and neighbors who’ve come to visit and to help. Three of them wrote articles so I only have to do this short bit and my nature notes. Tom McNamara (see article below) came back as he has every year but one. He helped canning and weeding, took seed garlic and a couple shiitake logs, sang and prayed and ate with us. Nate and Tom Roemer (see articles below) each came for a week and helped us catch up and think again about what we’ve chosen. Jon came on his bike to garden with Joanna, work on his bike with Zach, make hummus with me and take vegetables home. Marge helped with garlic and lavender and learned how to make flower print cards. Heather came up from Syracuse (where she works in a L’Arche house) to help with canning and gardening and take home farm food. Maria came to glean what we didn’t have time to pick. Sr. Louise, family therapist at Rural & Migrant Ministry of Oswego County when we arrived, came with her cousin to the Unity Acres annual picnic and then came over to the farm. It is good for me to be here and have this work (however tired I get in August) and so much to share with whoever comes.
My Time at St. Francis Farm by Tom Roemer
When asked by someone what purpose a monk can serve in the modern world, Thomas Merton is said to have replied, “Monks are like trees who, standing silently in the darkness, by their very presence purify the air.” My brief stay at St. Francis Farm had such a purifying, rejuvenating effect on me.
Lorraine, Joanna, and Zachary Hoyt have managed to nurture the development of a well-integrated farm organism here which seemed peaceful and vital, quite beautiful, which allowed a visitor like me to breathe it all in with deep appreciation, without distracting screens or screaming headlines. Each day had a steady rhythm to it, providing strength for meaningful, productive farm work and time for quiet reflection or thoughtful conversation. The Hoyts’ love for the place shines through the quality of the beautiful landscape, the nutritious and delicious food they produce and share, the amazing furniture, cabinets, toys, buildings and musical instruments they have fashioned from their own milled lumber, and the quality of relationships with their neighbors. I felt blessed to share in it all briefly--like a rejuvenating stroll through a pristine forest, with friends who are able to be quiet together.
I was blessed with a background in the Catholic faith tradition that offered me an alternative. Having paid off my school loans and having a student teacher offered me the free time in which I sensed the Lord calling me to service and priesthood that drew me to St. Francis Farm Catholic Worker. Here I lived and worked with John & Joan Donnelly, Father Ted Sizing, and many other community members from 1995-2000. At the farm I had the opportunity to contemplate the writings of Dorothy Day and the social teaching of the Church and to implement them directly. I saw scripture come alive in the economy of the farm as it interacted with people’s lives and in creation around me.
The farm’s mission necessarily grows and changes over the years as times and circumstances necessitate. Now 17 years after having left the farm, I am blessed with the opportunity to visit the farm and the Hoyt family and see the many changes they have made--new buildings and systems that enable the farm economy, the divine exchange, to continue in new and exciting ways. We are able to engage a dialogue with difference that is key to sustainable life on this planet, conversations with our neighbors, and peaceful relations with all. It’s built into the Trinitarian life: mutuality in union, sharing without dominating or depriving others. It’s the fountainhead of life to which we have access through the most simple of activities…from a weed pulled to the washing of a dish.
Now if there were something I would share with a young person, I would say first, make sure you get some quiet time to sit and think and pray. Don’t be afraid of stepping out and exploring your faith tradition; keep seeking answers and speaking with wise people. Then do something that you enjoy with your hands; learn to build or make something; plant a garden. Engaging in these activities will cause you to ask questions and meet new people: you will find yourself naturally drawn toward activities in which your ancestors engaged. That’s a good thing. And finally, serve. Spending yourself in service of others will pull you into community of like minded individuals. Check out the local soup kitchen or thrift shop. In short, engage the works of mercy laid out in Matthew 31… basic human needs remain just that in any age. Looking for the Christ you might just find yourself. You will.
As an itinerant friar, I am moving again. From the retreat center in the mid Hudson Valley to the lower east side of Manhattan and Our Lady of Sorrows parish. It has served as a home for immigrants for 150 years, and now is mostly a parish of Spanish-speaking folks from the Caribbean. Though I was there 4 years ago, it will be an adjustment, a new challenge, as I exchange mountains for high rise apartment complexes. But I trust that the Lord who revealed himself to me over the years will continue to guide and keep me. Blessings to you in this late summer season. And stop and visit when you can!
Tom McNamara, OFM Cap,Our Lady of Sorrows Friary, 213 Stanton Street, New York, NY 10002
It is easier to feel sympathy for a man who dies of thirst than for a man who drinks himself to death. One dies at the hands of injustice, the other strangles himself. To save the first we must give him water— we must cover the Earth in springs and wells. To save the other we must somehow convert his soul—show him that his entire approach to life is mistaken, that there is a spirit in him that longs to wrestle with God, that the struggles of his life have meaning, that there is another way.
Of these two men, I am closer to the second. I’ve had a materially comfortable life challenged by doubts about the world and life itself. While I’ve not yet been in any desperate position, I’ve flirted with drug abuse, depression, anger at the world, hopelessness, meaninglessness, and the complex array of personal difficulties they generate. My family has prevented me from ever giving up hope entirely. Thank God for them. I could never shake the notion that my life mattered because they loved me no matter what. That’s how God loves us: on death row, in the whorehouse, defeated, diseased, broken, consumed by evil. (continued below picture)
Nothing indicates the “depth of the disorder of the world” like juxtaposition. Here we are in America, so many of us literally eating ourselves to death, while hunger afflicts whole portions of the earth, whole sections of our cities. The relationship is symbolic: the rotund do not actually snatch food from the emaciated. But it remains true that some in this world suffer from too much, while others suffer from too little. This strange economy of material is reflected in an economy of spirit.
There is a story told by Abdalhaqq Bewley, a companion of writer and Muslim convert Ian Dallas: in the sixties, a couple of world-weary westerners go to Morocco in search of another way. They spot a shepherd on the outskirts of town and ask him where he has come from. The shepherd, a simple man, says “I come from God and to God I shall return.” It would be difficult to find such wisdom as this on an American university campus; it would be impossible to find it on Wall Street. Bewley doesn’t tell the story to show us that poverty correlates to wisdom. He means to show that before the onset of modernity— which creates the material conditions of global poverty and nuclear war, as well as the spiritual conditions of secular sentimentality— there was a world that humbly carried on its earthly work while orienting itself within a cosmos of truth and meaning that extended beyond birth and death.
This is, I think, a more general template of the “philosophy so old it looks new”. But it is not merely a set of ideas about the world: by its very nature this “philosophy” calls man to live in a particular way. (I have learned to be skeptical of great theorists whose theories do not make them live greatly!) I have been reading good stuff for several years now, nestling chapters written by Dorothy Day between benders. I somehow expected reading to have a magical effect on me: reading good stuff would make me do good stuff. But I did not understand how to get from idea to action. As far as I can tell, no words have the power to convey that wisdom. So I’ve carried on like a hamster on a wheel the last several years: wait tables, go to class, drink beer, go out to eat, read something hopeful, smoke pot, tell jokes, dream of a better way, repeat. This spring I realized that the contradictions between my ideals and my activities could not longer be explained away. In the evening, reflecting on the day, I could not make any sense out of what I had done. I decided not to go back to school (where I was working on getting my Upper Class Membership card). I decided to go for a long walk. I decided to look harder for another way.
On a whim, I shot St. Francis Farm an email. May I come by for a few days? And what a few days it was! Since returning home I’ve had a hard time explaining it to friends and family. It wasn’t particularly fun (nor was it un-fun). It wasn’t a “neat experience” (like studying abroad or traveling). I didn’t make any money. I didn’t learn any new skills. I didn’t learn any new lesson I could articulate in words. Mostly I just weeded. I pulled willow leaves off of branches for rabbit food. I ate healthy, home-grown, home cooked meals. I woke up at 7 and went to sleep at 10. I talked with new friends about all sorts of things (except TV shows). I washed some dishes, picked some peas, sprinkled some sawdust around a goat pen, went for a few walks, tried my hand at goat-milking and wood-splitting (and gained a great deal of respect for those who can do these things in the process!).
There were no fireworks, no strippers, no crowds, no all you can eat buffets, no booze and no cash prizes. In some ways, my visit to St. Francis Farm was the opposite of a visit to Atlantic City I once took. I was there for the week instead of the weekend. I spent nothing. I left feeling spiritually recharged instead of hungover. I don’t regret it in retrospect. I saw healthy, happy people living reasonably instead of hopeless, broken people caught up in an insane society. I discovered during my stay what it feels like to perform the various boring, mundane activities which sexy, revolutionary ideas (like the vision of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day) call us to undertake; I discovered that I can live my days in harmony with my dreams. There is, after all, another way.
For friends reading this who have decided, like my hosts— like Lorraine, Joanna and Zachary— to do the hard thing and try to live an alternative life in the midst of a chaotic and unsympathetic world, do not forget how helpful it is to folks like me, folks who suffer from too much, folks who have ideas and are trying to find ways to live them.
I imagine such a life is difficult, mostly because it builds little walls between us and our old friends, our family members who look on us with confusion when we talk about going back to the land. The farms must get lonely from time to time. You endure these things in order to prove to the world that there is another way to live, here and now, that if you want to, you can take it up today. What hope that inspires we cannot know or measure, but I may claim some portion of it. The capitalists, the Marxists and the socialists are all alike in this: if you want justice you must wait for the world to arrive at it—take up your business, your gun and your ballot in the meanwhile. After five days on St. Francis Farm, I’m searching for a shovel, a pitchfork, or a ladle to take up. With persistence, a bit of “luck” and lots of good company, I may learn to more readily find joy in the work of living good.
This summer I finally learned to weld, which I have been putting off for the last 14 years. I have an old stick welder that was left to me by my grandfather, but he was taken ill before I was old enough to learn from him, and I have been thinking about welding ever since it was brought out here. I was uncertain whether I could learn by myself or if I needed to take an evening class somewhere, but the places that offer welding instruction are not too close by and I never got myself together to do it. Last summer Fr. Tom McNamara loaned me a book from a college course he had taken on farm welding which was very helpful, since it covered the exact kinds of things I was trying to do. This summer with the wiring in place for the welder in the new barn it was finally time to give it a try. I still have a lot to learn, but so far I have been able to make several repairs to wagons and farm machinery and they have held up under use. Being able to weld things myself has been fun, and it has also been a convenience and a cost savings over having to take things away to be welded or hire someone to come out to the farm to do it as we have before.
This summer we have had more shiitake mushrooms than ever before, 3 or 4 pounds a week. I don’t know whether this is because we are keeping them in a better environment or because of the new variety that we used to inoculate logs last year and this, but whatever the cause it has been a very nice outcome. We still have a lot of the logs that we inoculated this year to sell, and if last year was anything to go by we are more likely to sell them in the later fall or next spring once they have been proven to have fruited successfully.
Lumber sales at the sawmill have been good overall, but quite variable. I cut a large dead cherry tree out at the back of one of the fields in July and brought it out to the mill. The butt log is too big to fit in our mill so I will have to cut it in half lengthwise with the chainsaw, which is a job I have never tried before. We have a lot of ash trees that have died or are dying, and while we are selling some I will have to think about cutting some extra ash lumber and storing it out of the way somewhere before the dead trees start to rot.
In May I was contacted by the new Oswego County ramp coordinator at ARISE to see if I would build wheelchair ramps again. Apparently my name had gotten lost for a while during the transition. I built a ramp in Richland at the beginning of June and one in Redfield in mid-August.
I painted the floors in the downstairs of the house and put the polyurethane clear finish on the new wood in the kitchen. I still need to put in baseboards in the kitchen, but then it will finally be done. I put new handrails on the front porch steps and the outside stairs to the second floor during the summer.
In July I replaced the wooden parts of the footbridge over the stream on the way to the pond with the help of Nate, who spent a week with us and wrote an article elsewhere in the newsletter. The metal camper frame underneath was still in good condition, and I found a simpler and stronger way to put together the wood deck over it. I used ash and I think it should last for a few more years now.
I had to make a new wooden frame for the pigpen this year, as they tend to rot and become weak after a few seasons in use. This year’s pig has been doing very well so far, and is scheduled to be taken to be processed in early October.
Earlier this year we had a visitor who said that in his ideal world there would be no work. I said in mine there’d still be work, but there wouldn’t be blight, potato bugs and hailstorms to wreck the fruit of the work. When I wrote my agriculture update in June I was feeling frustrated with erratic weather and difficult births. Since then I’ve had almost the sort of farming year I’d like in a perfect world.
The rain has persisted and the garden’s growing apace. (We’re lucky in having a level untilled garden with thick plant cover on high ground, so erosion and waterlogging haven’t been problems.) We froze peas and had plenty to give away; they kept bearing into late July. We just finished canning green beans; Maria has picked some to share with friends from church. The garlic harvest was good. We’ve begun harvesting early potatoes, though the main crop won’t come in until late September. We’re canning and drying tomatoes now. The pepper plants are thriving and we’v begun to freeze some. We’ve had a good supply of lettuce and other greens all through the summer, thanks to the moist and fairly cool weather. Cukes and squash are hanging in there despite some difficulty with squash vine borers and powdery mildew. We’ve been sending greens, beans, squash, cukes, garlic, herbs and cherry tomatoes to the soup kitchen along with goat cheese. Our fall snow peas are blossoming. Sarah VanNorstrand gave us some purchased sweet potato slips to go with our homegrown ones, and we planted them out in the old silo foundation, in compost harvested from the chicken yard. Their bed is now a mound of sprawling vines; the rabbits are enjoying the vine trimmings, and I trust that all that vegetative vigor is collecting solar energy to put into tubers.
We’ve kept getting healthy litters of rabbits from one old and one new doe, and we’ve saved some youngsters to breed next year. The wet weather has made it easy for me to find fresh plants to cut for them. The goats are also doing well; Dora seems to have fully recovered from her difficult kidding, her kid throve and was sold on to another farm, and both our does are enjoying the richness of the pasture.
I don’t have to plant or weed or water the wild berries, but I do enjoy them. The raspberries were sparse this year because of fungus, but the blackberries are large, sweet and prolific; I’ve picked and frozen quite a few from the edges of the hayfields, and we have Amish neighbors coming to pick the patch in the woods.
Last year we had excellent help for twelve solid weeks from the two Japanese students who came here through WWOOF. This year we haven’t had WWOOFers and I’ve had to scramble a bit to keep up with the work, helped by Zach. But we’ve had some delightful visitors who have helped me to remember that satisfying work is also a blessing. Nate and Tom Roemer(see articles on pages 4-5 and page 1) each spent a week with us and helped me weed and harvest and weed and plant and weed. Tom McNamara (see article on page 2) stopped for a shorter visit and helped us can and garden. I’m grateful for their help, for intense conversations across garden beds, and for seeing the work through their eyes, with renewed gratitude.
In this time when violence and threats of violence are increasing, when it seems harder and harder for people to agree on what’s real, I’m glad to have work that grounds me in the reality of the created world and gives me something constructive to do. It also gives me time to pray for the work I don’t know how to do, the people I don’t know how to reach and the wounds I don’t know how to heal. I hope all of you are finding practices to hold onto in hard times, and finding occasions for gratitude and grace.
(Nature notes and wish list follow pictures below)
This was a year for frogs--their choruses and calling went on well into July and now in August when we walk the field paths frogs of all sizes hop ahead of us in the wet grass--from tiny ones just graduated from tadpole status to large pickerel and leopard frogs. The pond has stayed high with so much rain, so high that the herons mostly avoid it and hunt along the little brook. While the frogs are plentiful, I’ve seen fewer snapping turtles, only observed one digging a nest back in June.
Foliage has stayed fresh and green later into the season and the wildflowers (and weeds--is there a difference?) are prolific. Bee balm now blooms in many spots along the pond edge and brook banks where I started it from the big clump behind the white pine.
Fireflies were abundant in early July and we enjoyed going out to watch them at dusk. Bats have made a comeback after a few lean years and we’re glad to have them on mosquito patrol but wish they hadn’t tried to meet my sisters when they were staying in the house. We watched a black swallowtail caterpillar become a chrysalis and emerge a butterfly in July and now have a couple monarch caterpillars eating milkweed in the cage we’ve made for them.